A Special Bench of the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde on Friday objected to senior lawyers “imputing motives” on the top court for attempting to “stall” proceedings in various High Courts concerning acute oxygen shortage and COVID-19 essentials for patients as deaths climb.
The Bench was reacting to various news media reports in which several senior lawyers voiced their perceptions on the Bench’s sudden intervention on Thursday, taking suo motu cognisance of the issue.
According to them, the top court should have neither disturbed the High Court proceedings nor attempted to transfer the cases to itself midway.
On Thursday’s two-page order, the Bench had asked the Centre for a ‘national plan’ to facilitate a uniform supply of COVID-19 essentials. It had issued formal notices to the Centre and States, the Union Territories and parties who went to the various High Courts.
The CJI Bench had asked them why the top court should not go ahead and pass “uniform orders” on the supply of oxygen, essential drugs, method and manner of vaccination and declaration of lockdown.
This order on Thursday had triggered anticipation among the legal fraternity and the public that the sudden intervention of the top court would delay much-needed relief from the High Courts or derail their ongoing monitoring of oxygen supply by the States and the Centre.
Lacklustre responses from authorities had been met with proactive judicial orders and sharp remarks from the High Courts of Delhi, Bombay, Sikkim, M.P., Calcutta, Allahabad and Gujarat. People had approached these courts in a state of panic due to lack of medical oxygen, essential drugs, hospital beds and so on.
But Thursday’s order had somehow presumed that the HCs’ orders were only reaching out to a few and did not give uniform relief.
“The High Courts have passed certain orders which may have the effect of accelerating and prioritising the services to a certain set of people and slowing down the availability of these resources to certain other groups whether the groups are local, regional or otherwise. Prima facie , we are inclined to take the view that the distribution of these essential services and supplies must be done in an even-handed manner according to the advice of the health authorities,” Thursday’s order said.
On Friday, however, the Bench accused senior advocates such as Vikas Singh and Dushyant Dave, who were vocal against Thursday’s order, of “putting pressure on the court”.
“We never stalled the HCs [High Courts] from passing orders. Mr. Dave, you imputed motives on us without seeing the order... You have to protect this institution,” Justice L. Nageswara Rao asked.
“We did ask the governments to go to the HCs,” Justice S. Ravindra Bhat said.
“What we said was a matter of perception... You have done it [transferred COVID-related cases] in the past,” Mr. Dave, appearing for the Gujarat Bar Association, submitted.
“Lawyers should go by judicial orders and not perceptions,” Solicitor General Tushar Mehta intervened.
“Mr. Mehta, you have been arguing for the government on the basis of perception,” Mr. Dave responded.
Mr. Singh, appearing for the Supreme Court Bar Association, said “there are only two hours more of oxygen, people will die. Please pass orders to smoothen the inter-State movement... Delhi is not given oxygen”.
The CJI, whose is retiring on April 24, exclaimed “that is the very thing we are saying”.
On Thursday, the court had asked the Centre to report on the setting up of a “co-ordinating body to monitor allocation of essentials; on the declaration of essential COVID commodities; and logistical support both intra and inter State”.
But, on Friday, the Bench chose to adjourn the hearing to Tuesday, saying Mr. Mehta wanted time.
“I want to adjourn because Your Lordship [Chief Justice Bobde] should have a memorable farewell, a loving farewell,” Mr. Mehta said.
Meanwhile, the court-appointed amicus curiae and senior advocate, Harish Salve, recused from the case. Mr. Salve said he was withdrawing from the sensitive case because of imputations made that he and the CJI were personal school friends. He said he did not want the important issues in the case to side-tracked by any malignant imputations in the media.
The court allowed him to recuse and posted the case for Tuesday.